Mindfulness meditation to control pain

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Dealing with pain day in and day out can create a lot of stress on our bodies and minds. Stress reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends the body scan mindfulness exercise as the best form of mindfulness meditation for pain conditions.

Kabat-Zinn advises practicing the exercise every day for 45 minutes, even if it seems boring or doesn't seem to be helping. "You don't have to like it, you just have to do it," he explains in his book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. "Whether you find the body scan to be very relaxing and interesting or difficult and uncomfortable or exasperating is irrelevant to whether it will serve you well."

The goal of the body scan is not to relieve the pain completely, but to get to know it and learn from it so you can manage it.

You can try the body scan technique by following these simple steps:

• Lie on your back or in any comfortable, outstretched position.

• Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Feel your belly expanding gently when you inhale and receding when you exhale.

• Focus on your left foot. Feel any and all sensations in this area, including pain. Try to recede a little more into the floor every time you exhale.

• When your mind wanders, observe where it has gone and gently return your focus to the foot without judging yourself.

• If you notice pain, acknowledge it and any thoughts or emotions that accompany it, and gently breathe through it. See if by carefully observing the discomfort, you can help your body to relax. Don't expect the pain to abate; just watch it with a mindful but non-judging mind.

• Gradually, let go of the focus on your left foot completely—even if any pain there hasn't gone away or has intensified—and move on to the left ankle and repeat the process.

• Slowly and patiently, proceed this way throughout the body. 

© Harvard Medical School